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At this time of year, it’s hard to avoid the references to Halloween or Bonfire Night shoehorned into every aspect of life, with every shop, every brand and every TV show putting a seasonal spin on the autumnal festivities in a bid to make you part with your cash. It’s easy to understand why Darren Hayman might have chosen to release his latest album at this time of year then, although there’s nothing gimmicky about The Violence, a double concept album inspired by the seventeenth century Essex Witch Trials which took place in the midst of the English Civil War.
The result of extensive research and Hayman’s talent for bringing even the most obscure subjects to life, The Violence is a lengthy listen that’s initially best considered alongside the insightful sleeve notes penned by the man himself. They broadens the ideas behind each song and underline the parallels with modern life that run throughout these tracks chronicling some of the most turbulent times in English history. With these connections to the subject matter to hand, the likes of ‘Henrietta Maria’ are turned from a pleasant three minutes into a tale of Charles I’s love for his French bride, while the spy stories and brutal death of ‘Parliament Joan’ can be understood in their full glory.
The main success of The Violence is taking these stories – of sad old ladies, suspicious communities and the men who exploited those fears – and making them feel incredibly modern. Hayman’s matter-of-fact delivery and first-person narratives put us right in the heart of these tales and makes them seem not just historical curiosities but parables on the fear mongering we still experience today.
Of course, none of that clever lyricism would mean a jot if The Violence was unlistenable, but thankfully Hayman has wrapped his research in some fine musicianship. The Violence is actually the final LP in the singer’s ‘Essex Trilogy’, a trio of albums reflecting on his home county, and it definitely follows a similar musical path to the proceeding release, 2010’s Essex Arms. There’s a gentle, acoustic heart to many of the tracks, with flourishes of piano, strings and brass fleshing them out and instrumental passages recurring throughout.
Hayman is obviously a prolific writer – Essex Arms had a whole album of out-takes later released as a stand-alone album, and he spent January 2011 writing and releasing a song a day. The 20 tracks that make up The Violence provides further evidence of such overspill, and it’s true that a trim here or there could make it a tighter, more immediate record – there’s a few tales of hanging witches that cover similar ground.
However, what at first can seem overwhelming soon becomes familiar with a few listens, with Hayman’s understated vocals slowly revealing some truly beguiling melodies. The finest – the Hidden Cameras-esque anthemic swirl of ‘Rebecca West’, or the infectious stomp of the opening ‘Impossible Times’ – step outside of their context here to showcase themselves as some of the best tracks Hayman has created throughout his lengthy career.
You get a sense that The Violence, as a record and as a project, is something that Hayman is very proud of, and he’d be right to feel that way. It’s a record that can be enjoyed on a simple music level, but also explored as an interesting take on a particular historical period. And there’s not many LPs you can say that about.